How Your Social Network Shapes Your Decisions (And Your Friends' Decisions)

What's the Big Idea?

Love your best friend? Good. Chances are you’re unconsciously emulating her. As humans, we all engage in mimicry, says Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis, and we usually copy the people to whom we are most connected.  

Watch the interview:

This adaptive tic is especially noticeable when it comes to the use and reuse of verbal expressions. The urge to pepper our conversation with phrases we hear uttered by close friends and colleagues can be irresistible. No matter how annoying, pretentious, and useless you find business jargon, for instance, the day may very well come when you want to "take everything to the next level" and habitually refer to easy fixes as "low hanging fruit." (Where did "no worries" come from? It worries me a lot.) 

In one recent study, psychologists showed subjects silent videos of speakers reading a list of words then asked them to repeat the words they saw on screen. Without being instructed to, subjects pronounced the words in the same accent as the person on the video. The researchers attribute this impulse to the brain's innate tendency to empathize and affiliate. 

But we pick up more than just speech patterns from our interactions. "You come to copy [those in your network] along a whole variety of traits," says Christakis. At work, these include things like energy level, cooperation, productivity, and even health-related traits such as whether or not you smoke. According to Christakis -- who, with his team at Harvard, has mapped and studied workplace networks -- once we appreciate how intricately and deeply people are connected to each other, we can use that understanding as a tool to call forth better behavior. 

What's the Significance?

"The usual way of understanding workplace organization is the classic org chart where you have boxes and names and it's like a tree," he says. In fact, the real structure of an organization looks more like a tangle of Christmas tree lights than a set of hierarchical branches, with every bulb a person and the wire, the ties that have formed between them. In order to be effective, health interventions must be set-up accordingly. 

Christakis suggests identifying the most influential people in the network, and targeting education and outreach towards those specific people: "We know that when groups of people, particularly people who know each other and are interconnected collaboratively, engage in something such as a health improvement behavior that they're more likely to sustain it and more likely to respond positively."

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mind & Brain

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less